Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts Page  [End Page 22]

The last day of 1862 was a busy one for Abraham Lincoln. Aside from his daily trudge to the War Office, which in the wake of recent Union army defeats in the East at Fredericksburg and in the West at Vicksburg (the first assault) had become even ghastlier in its dependable gloom, the commander-in-chief also had to make final preparations for his boldest measure so far, the Final Emancipation Proclamation, which he was to sign the next day. Early in the day he presided over the final discussion of the proclamation with his cabinet. That afternoon, with painstaking care, he began to write out the final document. Late into the night and into the dawn, Lincoln finished the document, although perhaps still not to his satisfaction. He knew, as he told Senator Charles Sumner, "that the name connected with this document will never be forgotten." [1]

On that same day, December 31, 1862, Lincoln connected his name to a document that many of his adherents and later apologists would gladly forget: a contract with Bernard Kock, an ambitious and unscrupulous venturer, to use federal funds to remove some five thousand black men, women, and children from the United States to a small island off the coast of Haiti. It was Lincoln's last effort at colonizing blacks outside the United States, executed only one day before he was to sign a proclamation putting into effect his first official effort at permanently freeing slaves in the country.[2]

The juxtaposition of these two efforts — colonization, a remnant of a former generation's conservative approach to slaves and free blacks, and outright emancipation, a more progressive program with no provisions for sending freed slaves abroad or compensating their Page  [End Page 23] former owners — has long perplexed and frustrated historians, just as it did Lincoln's contemporaries. Although most historians have conceded that Lincoln was motivated by politics as well as principle in his approach to emancipation and equal rights for blacks, there has been unending debate on his commitment to racial equality.[3] On the specific issue of colonization, scholars have focused far less on Lincoln's political calculations and far more on possible racial motivations. [4] Those who tend to see Lincoln as a racist usually assume that he never gave up the idea of deporting all free blacks, while those who believe in Lincoln as a racial egalitarian typically assert that his racial views matured as he realized that colonization could not work and that he came to believe that blacks had a legitimate claim to remaining in the United States.

An examination of Lincoln's efforts, and not just his rhetoric, in favor of colonizing blacks outside the United States suggests that Lincoln was as much motivated by political concerns as by his personal views toward blacks. His strategy was to propose colonization to sweeten the pill of emancipation for conservatives from the North and the border states, the slave states that did not secede during the Civil War; at the same time, he used political manipulation to prevent radicals from thwarting the colonization program and Page  [End Page 24] thus jeopardizing his ultimate goal of making emancipation an acceptable war aim to the Union cause. Lincoln, always a careful politician, admitted nothing of political motives behind his advocacy of colonization, so we are left only with his actions and the opinions of his contemporaries to lend insight into his true intentions. Yet even with such limited evidence, a clear picture emerges of Lincoln using the prospect of black colonization to make emancipation more acceptable to conservatives and then abandoning all efforts at colonization once he made the determined step toward emancipation in the Final Emancipation Proclamation.


As a young politician in Illinois before the Civil War, Lincoln often voiced his belief that blacks and whites would live best if they lived separately. It was a belief he shared with the two American statesmen he revered most: Thomas Jefferson, an early advocate of gradual, voluntary emigration of blacks; and Henry Clay, a leader of the Whig party during the 1830s and 1840s and a founder of the American Colonization Society. The society, founded in 1816, sought to remove black Americans voluntarily to Africa. In 1821 the society purchased land in northwest Africa and set up the colony of Liberia, which remained a U.S. colony until it gained independence in 1846. The colonization movement foundered in the late 1840s but was resuscitated in the early 1850s as the American Colonization Society intensified its recruitment of black emigrants. [5]

Lincoln first proclaimed an interest in colonization during his eulogy for Henry Clay in 1852, when he admitted his allegiance to the esteemed Kentuckian's dual creed of gradual emancipation coupled with colonization. If slavery could be eliminated and the slaves returned to "their long-lost fatherland," claimed Lincoln, "it will indeed be a glorious consummation." Impressed by Lincoln's commitment to colonization, the members of the Illinois Colonization Society repeatedly asked him to speak at their meetings, and he obliged them in 1853 and again in 1855. Although by no means a leader of the colonization movement in Illinois, Lincoln still could use the issue to attach himself to the political tradition of Clay and, Page  [End Page 25] as inheritor of Clay's stately mantle, to become a leading politician of the West. [6]

Clay, Lincoln's beau ideal of a statesman
Henry Clay, Lincoln's beau ideal of a statesman

Lincoln's belief in colonization also worked to his advantage in many debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. In 1854, while Douglas campaigned for reelection and Lincoln campaigned Page  [End Page 26] for the anti-Douglas coalition, the two met in a series of debates on the issue of the Kansas-Nebraska bill and its doctrine of popular sovereignty, which Douglas had helped formulate. Under Douglas's proposal, the people of any territory seeking admission to the Union would determine whether slavery could exist in the territory. Lincoln stood firmly against popular sovereignty and the extension of slavery that it would allow, but his stance left him politically vulnerable to Douglas's charge that he favored racial equality. Racism was prevalent in the Midwest in the 1850s. When Douglas tried to portray Lincoln as the friend of the blacks, Lincoln countered, as he did in a speech at Peoria, Illinois, by denying that he saw blacks as equals and by advocating the colonization of freed slaves in Liberia. Lincoln was aware, however, of the practical difficulties of such a program: "If they were all landed there [Liberia] in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days," he stated.[7]

Three years later in Springfield, Lincoln again debated Douglas. Now the issue was the Dred Scott case, and Douglas, the dominant force behind the Democratic party in Illinois and throughout the nation, accused not only Lincoln but also the entire newly formed Republican party of favoring black equality. Lincoln sidestepped Douglas's charge by discussing colonization instead: "I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it." Lincoln wanted the audience to believe that his advocacy of colonization was more than just a whimsical hope, that it was in fact a genuine party policy, albeit an unstated one. During the Senate race in 1858, Lincoln again invoked colonization, as well as an occasional statement of white superiority, to counter Douglas's charges that he favored racial equality. All through the debates Lincoln walked a narrow political path by refuting Douglas's support of slavery without claiming equal rights for blacks. Colonization, like no other issue, helped him stay the course. [8]

But Lincoln did not invoke colonization only when it was politically expedient to do so. In his first few months as president, at a time when there was no particular demand for a plan of colonization, Page  [End Page 27] Lincoln took important steps toward such a plan. In October 1861, he asked Caleb B. Smith, secretary of the interior, to look into a proposal for colonizing blacks on the isthmus of Chiriqui, a small area in the northwest of present-day Panama.[9]

In his annual message to Congress in December of that year, Lincoln made his first public statement as president in support of colonization. Former slaves seeking refuge across Union lines, who were regarded as contraband, had aroused the racist fears of northern whites and threatened to become an economic burden. To alleviate the problem, Lincoln suggested that Congress appropriate funds for colonizing the slaves. He also advocated an additional step. "It might be well to consider," he submitted, "whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization."[10] Thus he called for not just a relief plan for the freedmen, but for a full program of racial separation.


Congress answered Lincoln's call in the next few months. Although few legislators considered full separation of the races either desirable or practical, many of the Republicans, who held a majority in Congress, were willing to vote for small-scale colonization projects. During March and April 1862, as Congress debated whether to emancipate slaves in Washington, D.C., Senator James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin argued for appropriations for the voluntary emigration of the freed slaves from the District. His arguments incurred angry rebuttal from Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky and many other border state Unionists who favored forced deportation of the former slaves. If the freedmen were not forced to leave, Davis said, "The negroes that are now liberated, and that remain in this city, will become a sore and a burden and a charge upon the white population." Doolittle refuted such statements with impassioned pleas for the humanity of voluntary colonization. In addition, he argued against restrictions on how the president should use the $100,000 proposed for colonization. It was only after Doolittle received opposition on Page  [End Page 28] this point from a fellow northern Republican, John Hale of New Hampshire, that he suggested a generous maximum of $100 be spent on each emigrant. [11]

Meanwhile, Francis P. Blair, Jr., of Missouri, a longtime advocate of colonization, defended Lincoln's policy in the House of Representatives. On April 12, 1862, the day after slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C., Blair admitted that Liberia had "failed to attract the freed negro population in any considerable numbers," but proclaimed his optimism about the possibility of Negro colonization in Central America. "There is a vast difference," he said, "between the idea of being colonized on our own continent, under our own flag, and being buried in Africa." Blair not only believed in colonization as a remedy to present and future racial hostilities, but also well understood how the promise of colonization could help undercut the political power of slaveholders in the Confederacy: "We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slave-holders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of negroes." [12] The arguments of Blair in the House and Doolittle in the Senate helped lead to a congressional appropriation of $100,000 to be used by the president for colonizing the freedmen of the District.

Three months later, on July 16, 1862, Congress appropriated $500,000 more for the colonization of any other freedmen under the Second Confiscation Act, which allowed military commanders to free slaves held by southern rebels. Thus, only six months after suggesting a colonization policy, Lincoln had received $600,000 in congressional appropriations.

Historians who have analyzed the colonization issue assert that Lincoln called for colonization and Congress answered. Thus, in the words of Benjamin Quarles, "Lincoln's support of colonization succeeded in breathing a little life into the long-ailing movement." Implicit in the scenario is an assumption about the relationship between Lincoln and the Congress that has received criticism from such scholars as Harold Hyman, who disputes the notion that Lincoln Page  [End Page 29] was the main force behind the government during the Civil War and calls for a more detailed analysis of the role of Congress in forming Lincoln's Civil War policy. [13]

Perhaps such an approach could allow more insight into the colonization issue. Rather than assuming that Congress was solely responding to Lincoln's agendas, historians might ask how congressmen with their own agenda influenced Lincoln's decisions. Even before Lincoln took office, Blair and Doolittle had argued for colonization, and Senator Benjamin F. Wade had supported a specific plan of colonization in Central America. This prior congressional action may have reinforced Lincoln's own inclination toward setting in motion a colonization plan. He could only be pleased that Congress, in its act to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, joined emancipation to his own "two principles of compensation, and colonization ... and practically applied [them] in the act."[14]

Furthermore, before Lincoln delivered his annual message of 1861, he had received key support for a plan of colonization in Chiriqui from Francis P. Blair, Sr., the eternal sage of Silver Spring, Maryland, who had once served in President Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet" and now occasionally advised Lincoln. Knowing that Blair's sentiments were shared by his sons, Francis P. Blair, Jr., in the House, and Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair in his cabinet, Lincoln could be confident of further support as he moved ahead in his plans for colonization. [15]


It is difficult to account for the lapse of time between the congres- Page  [End Page 30] sional appropriations for colonizing blacks in April 1862, and Lincoln's initiation of an actual plan of colonization four months later. By mid-July, Lincoln had more than just congressional endorsement of colonization; he had an actual appropriation. Yet he waited until much later that year before taking any measures toward such a plan.

Lincoln certainly had many options from which to choose. Caleb Smith, his secretary of the interior, had informed him on May 9 of private investors who owned available lands in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Chiriqui. Any of these plans of colonization might be suitable, Smith said, as long as the United States did not violate the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty between the United States and Britain, which prohibited either country from exercising sovereignty over lands in Central America. Moreover, Smith wrote a week later, "Prompt action on the part of the Executive is required to meet the wishes of Congress and the growing sentiment of the country in favor of the experiment of colonization authorized by the law of April 16." [16]

Although Lincoln hesitated in approving any of Smith's plans, he was more than willing to use the prospect of colonization for political purposes. In an appeal to representatives from the border states on July 12, he reiterated his desire for gradual emancipation. He assured the delegation that "Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance."[17] His reference to South America instead of Central America, the area most likely to be colonized, suggests that he cared less about the actual details of colonization than about offering it as a way of gaining border state acceptance of emancipation.

Perhaps Lincoln held all plans of colonization in abeyance at this time because he was more concerned about how to move on the larger issue of emancipation. During the ten days following his meeting with the border state representatives, he took definite steps toward freeing the slaves. On July 13, he told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles that he was considering emancipation, and on July 21, he proposed to his cabinet a military order to enlist blacks as troops, to employ them as laborers, and to colonize them in the tropics. This was the first time Lincoln introduced the colonization issue to the cabinet. Ac- Page  [End Page 31]

 Secretary of State William Henry Seward
Secretary of State William Henry Seward Page  [End Page 32]
cording to Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, colonization was hardly discussed, and at the cabinet meeting the next day, it was dropped entirely, while the other two measures were accepted. [18] Because Lincoln had just signed an act approving $500,000 for colonization, he probably felt obliged to bring up the issue with his cabinet. Yet he was not so dedicated to it that he would force the issue at the expense of generating ill sentiment among cabinet members that might jeopardize the two remaining orders or the Emancipation Proclamation, the first draft of which Lincoln read to his cabinet at the July 22 meeting.

Lincoln was still committed, however, to the idea that emancipation had to be linked to colonization. From August to December 1862, as he came closer to a final Emancipation Proclamation, he simultaneously tried to effect a successful plan of colonization. First, he sought to colonize Chiriqui. Lincoln set the Chiriqui project in motion by appointing James Mitchell as commissioner of emigration on August 4, 1862. Mitchell's first assignment was to assemble a delegation of five black leaders to meet with the president at the White House on August 14. [19]

At that meeting, the first and only time he would ever take the proposal of colonization directly to blacks, Lincoln assumed the unfortunate tone of a condescending father scolding ignorant children. "But for your race among us there could not be war," he observed, and he went on to prescribe their removal as the remedy. He had given up Liberia as an option for colonization because transportation there was too expensive and blacks preferred to remain on the American continent. Instead, he touted Central America, although not mentioning Chiriqui by name, as an area rich in coal where even a small band of colonists might succeed. When the prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass read about the meeting, he reacted with fury. "It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them," Douglass said of Lincoln's proposal for freed blacks, "and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt." Other blacks angry with Lincoln's words still supported his proposal. Henry Highland Garnet, a long-time advocate of vol- Page  [End Page 33] untary emigration, praised the Chiriqui plan as "the most humane, and merciful movement which this or any other administration has proposed for the benefit of the enslaved." [20]

With seemingly no regard for black reaction to his plan, Lincoln pressed on. He was not even dissuaded upon receiving word on September 5 from the renowned scientist Joseph Henry that the coal deposits in Chiriqui were of the lowest grade. Lincoln went ahead and signed a contract with Ambrose Thompson, the land developer who owned the site, and he appointed Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas as his agent of colonization. Pomeroy immediately began recruiting blacks for the new colony, now dubbed "Linconia" by the press.[21]

For a man who had decided to "advance slowly" on the issue of blacks, Lincoln seemed to be making some hasty and short-sighted decisions. Although he had told the black delegation to "Take [their] full time" in making a decision about the Chiriqui venture, he himself forged ahead with the project before learning whether enough colonists would volunteer. He touted the rich coal deposits in Chiriqui, but then chose to ignore Henry's dismal report. He signed a contract with Thompson despite the warnings of his secretary of the navy, who considered Thompson a scoundrel.

Perhaps Lincoln's most puzzling move was the appointment of Pomeroy as colonization agent. As a leading member of the New England Emigrant Aid Company in the 1850s, Pomeroy had experience in promoting an emigration program, and he had curried favor with Lincoln by supporting his candidacy at the 1860 Chicago convention. But the president certainly had heard the rumors that Pomeroy was a shady character, a man whom Welles suspected of having "a personal interest in the matter." No matter how sincere Pomeroy appeared in his desire to help execute the Chiriqui scheme, Lincoln should have been suspicious of a man who had opposed appropriations for colonization in April of that year and who in June Page  [End Page 34] had mocked the idea of colonization by proposing in its place a measure to colonize freed slaves together with their former masters.[22]


Northern newspaper editors refused to be taken in by colonization schemers, and they ridiculed the proposals of the president. The Democratic press voiced nothing but scorn. The New York Evening Express, run by the ever-intemperate Congressman James Brooks, complained that the cost of such a program would "entail upon the White Labor of the North, the doom and debt of the tax-groaning serfs and labor-slaves of Europe."[23] The Republican press was equally critical. Henry Raymond's New York Times plainly gave its verdict: "No, Mr. Pomeroy. No, Mr. President. The enfranchised blacks must find homes, without circumnavigating the seas at the National expense." Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune agreed: "The blacks can neither be colonized across the Gulf, or sent through our lines to the North. Their numbers utterly forbid and render futile these measures save on the most limited scale." Lincoln would have to look elsewhere for support of the Chiriqui project.[24]

Even members of the American Colonization Society expressed dismay over the Chiriqui venture, suggesting that it had been effected for the sake of expediency. "Are the leading minds of our time incapable of perceiving the necessary temporary character of all such expedients?" one member asked. William McLain, financial agent for the society, felt especially snubbed by Lincoln's proposal. On August 14, 1862, Lincoln had met with McLain and Joseph J. Roberts, president of Liberia, and told them that he thought Liberia a fine place where free blacks could flourish. Less than an hour later, he proposed the Chiriqui plan to the black delegation. Furious at Lincoln's apparent deceit in praising the Liberia effort, McLain ridiculed Page  [End Page 35] Mitchell, Pomeroy, and the entire Chiriqui plan: "Out upon all such men and such schemes!"[25]

Lincoln's decision to go forward with the Chiriqui plan in the face of such opposition may have been based on a purely political calculation. It was September of 1862, and Union armies were still faring poorly. Lincoln was ready to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as there was a Union victory, but he knew how serious the effects of such a proclamation could be on the November elections.[26] Emancipation without colonization may have seemed to Lincoln so radical a policy that it could result only in the demise of the Republican party in Congress and in the northern state legislatures.

Soon after Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, he had to suspend the Chiriqui plan because ministers from Central American countries objected to any such scheme without a treaty. Yet the project had served its purpose by allowing Lincoln to claim publicly that he had done something for the colonization movement. "[T]he effort to colonize persons of African descent," he wrote in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, "with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued [author's emphasis]." In private, however, the president was not nearly so optimistic. He told Thompson that he was discouraged by rumors he had heard of the Chiriqui proprietor and some of his business associates using funds allocated to colonization to pay private debts. Finally, on October 7, 1862, Lincoln formally suspended the Chiriqui plan despite protest from Senator Pomeroy that 13,700 blacks had already applied for emigration. [27] Page  [End Page 36]


Two days after promising in his preliminary proclamation not to proceed with colonization without first entering into treaties with the Central American states, Lincoln assembled his cabinet to suggest that the United States make treaties with foreign governments in order to establish colonies. Welles remained against such treaties; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was absent; and Seward, according to Welles's account, expressed some reservations. All others approved the proposal.[28]

That Lincoln waited so long to bring the Chiriqui plan to the attention of his full cabinet suggests another political dimension to colonization. He had dropped the colonization issue from cabinet discussions after July 22, 1862, when the issue threatened to distance his secretaries from him and from each other on the larger topic of emancipation; and, until the meeting of September 24, he had acted on his own initiative in the Chiriqui venture. By late September, after he had written colonization into his preliminary proclamation and after the Chiriqui scheme had threatened to embroil the United States in a diplomatic conflict, Lincoln had to bring the issue to the cabinet. A cabinet that had rejected an order for colonization in July now lent its support to the idea.

The cabinet's reversal might be explained simply as a reaction to the steps Congress and Lincoln had taken toward colonization. With $600,000 in appropriations available to the president, and various proposals for him to choose from, it was now clear to all that colonization was more than mere rhetoric. Another possible explanation might lie in Lincoln's skill at political management. Blair, Smith, and Attorney General Edward Bates had supported colonization, while Welles and Stanton had opposed it. Seward and Chase held the balance. Lincoln met Seward's concerns by agreeing to seek treaties for colonization. [29] Page  [End Page 37]

He approached Chase more indirectly. In July 1862, the secretary had opposed colonization. But over the next two months, he came to support "simple arrangements, under the legislation of Congress, by which any persons who might choose to emigrate would be secured in such advantages as might be offered them by other States or Governments." The intervening impetus behind Chase's new opinion may have been the appointment of his ally, Senator Pomeroy. Possibly Chase was swayed by Pomeroy's conversion from staunch opponent of colonization to leading agent of the movement and further impressed by Lincoln's decision to employ Pomeroy in one of his schemes.[30]

The colonization issue may again have played a part in cabinet dynamics when Lincoln promoted John P. Usher to succeed Caleb Smith as secretary of the interior in December 1862. Smith had been a loyal supporter of colonization, and Usher, as assistant secretary of interior, had personally extolled its benefits to Lincoln: "It will, if adopted, relieve the free states of the apprehension now prevailing, and fostered by the disloyal, that they are to be overrun by negroes made free by the war, [and] it will alarm those in rebellion, for they will see that their cherished property is departing from them forever and incline them to peace." In Usher, Lincoln found yet another ally in the cause of colonization.[31]


Supported by his cabinet in his commitment to find diplomatically feasible ways of colonizing the freedmen, Lincoln decided to initiate a colonization scheme at Vache Island, a small island off the coast of Haiti owned by land developer Bernard Kock. Kock claimed to Page  [End Page 38] have a diplomatic arrangement with Haiti that would permit the United States to colonize his island, although no one bothered to check the validity of his claim. Like Ambrose Thompson before him, Kock was a suspicious character. Even Bates, a consistent supporter of colonization, called Kock "an errant humbug." Despite these potential problems, Lincoln directed Usher to set up a contract with Kock; and on December 31, one day before signing the Final Emancipation Proclamation, he approved a contract for the transportation of five thousand blacks to Vache Island. [32]

Salmon Portland Chase
Salmon Portland Chase Page  [End Page 39]

Once more Lincoln had entered into a bargain with a questionable man to colonize blacks in a questionable place. As to why Lincoln pursued the plan, the answer again seems to lie in the timing of the scheme. The political necessity of keeping emancipation tied to colonization had become so fixed in Lincoln's mind that he may have believed any plan of emancipation that did not include colonization would be construed as a program of racial equality. No matter how much Lincoln's racial views had matured by 1863, he certainly was not ready to make such a statement. In his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had promised to continue colonizing blacks and had voiced his preference for gradual emancipation. He repeated these sentiments both privately in conversations with political conservatives and publicly in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, which called for a constitutional amendment providing for the colonization of blacks outside the United States. [33] To follow through on his promise of colonization, he had to follow through on one of the proposals made to the government. Kock's plan seemed as good as any, if not better, because it seemed unlikely to infringe upon the territorial claims of foreign powers.

Yet after Lincoln signed the Final Emancipation Proclamation, he took little interest in the Vache Island project. He made no public Page  [End Page 40] endorsement of colonization after delivering his annual message to Congress one month before the proclamation, and he suspended Kock's contract when Seward announced on January 3 that he wanted to investigate the venturer's reputation. When Seward verified that Kock was a swindler, the contract was cancelled. But the project continued. Paul Forbes and Charles Tuckerman, two New York financiers of Kock's project, offered to act as agents. On April 6 Usher signed the contract, which Lincoln subsequently approved. One week later five hundred of the projected five thousand blacks departed for Vache Island. [34]

No other blacks after the first shipload made the voyage to Vache Island, and in less than a year the venture failed dismally. By October 1863, the New York Daily Tribune could report: "The effort of the President to colonize 500 persons of color on the southwest coast of Hayti has proved a failure. Though unusual precaution was taken to contract with responsible parties to convey these people to their destination, many of them died of disease while others fled to more desirable localities." The Interior Department recalled the colonists in January 1864, and Usher, who had taken charge of overseeing the scheme, tried to play down the government's role in the fiasco. [35]

Stung by the Vache Island debacle, Congress decided to put an end to federally sponsored colonization. On March 15, 1864, Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota introduced a bill in the Senate withdrawing all funds for colonization. Congress passed the measure on July 2, and Lincoln signed it. Of the $600,000 appropriated by Congress for colonization, the Lincoln administration had spent only about $38,000. [36]

Lincoln actually had given up on colonization long before Congress repealed funds for the program. Since the departure of the Vache Island colonists in April 1863, the president, while privately continuing to endorse efforts of independent agencies and foreign countries to recruit emigrants, had done nothing to promote colonization. [37] Even his appointed agent of colonization had come to Page  [End Page 41] suspect the president's halting commitment. In early 1863, Pomeroy, who recognized the Vache Island venture as a meager gesture, bitterly penned a letter to Lincoln, demanding to know whether he ever intended to honor his promise of colonizing blacks, fourteen thousand of whom had applied for emigration. [38]

In fact, there is no reason to believe that Lincoln ever espoused colonization after he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation. Scholars who argue that Lincoln still hoped to colonize blacks after the proclamation rely on only two flimsy pieces of evidence. On July 1, 1864, the day before Congress voted to rescind its colonization appropriations, John Hay, Lincoln's personal secretary, recorded in his diary that "the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization." [39] Benjamin F. Butler, a leading Union general, claimed that early in 1865 Lincoln told him of the black soldiers, "I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves." Yet Butler's account is at best dubious, and Hay's allows for the possibility that Lincoln had given up the idea before July 1864.[40] Page  [End Page 42]


It is not difficult to understand why Lincoln gave up his idea of colonization. Union party victories in 1863 in the border states and all the northern states but New Jersey lessened the pressure on Lincoln to accommodate racist sentiment against the Emancipation Proclamation. Even if Lincoln had continued to support colonization, blacks clearly never would. Opposition to Lincoln's colonization proposals from Frederick Douglass, among others, who ridiculed colonization as simply "a safety valve ... for white racism" had never given way.[41] Also, blacks had taken a key role in the army, and the notion of sending abroad potential warriors against the Confederacy ran counter to common sense and military strategy. Moreover, alternatives to colonization outside the United States had proved more successful than any of Lincoln's schemes. Such efforts as Eli Thayer's military colonization in Florida and Lorenzo Thomas's refugee program in Mississippi may have given Lincoln a sense that blacks could have a future in this country.[42]

Advisors to Lincoln who had once flown the flag of colonization now showed different colors. Usher, whose counsel on colonization Lincoln had followed so far, wrote to the president in May 1863, just after Secretary Stanton formed the Bureau of Colored Troops, that the War Department's new policy toward blacks precluded further colonization; the office of the commissioner of emigration, wrote Usher, should be turned over to the Pension Bureau. One-time colonizationist Francis Blair, Sr., now admitted that settling the freedmen within the nation's boundaries made far more sense than sending them abroad. Even Ambrose Thompson, the opportunistic schemer behind the Chiriqui plan, recognized that colonization was no longer practical or profitable. By June 1863, he had stopped offering Lincoln a plan of colonization and offered him instead a plan to employ thousands of blacks as well as white immigrants on a railroad running between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.[43]

More troubling than the question of why Lincoln would give up Page  [End Page 43] the idea of colonization is the question of why he held on to the idea as long as he did. Lincoln's steadfast advocacy of colonization stemmed from more than just the common racist belief of the time that whites and blacks could not live in the same society. Lincoln seems also to have made a political calculation that he could not propose emancipation without at the same time proposing colonization. It was a calculation well understood by Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who recognized the "thriftless folly which gravely propose[s] the exportation of laborers by the millions," but who understood that colonization proposals might have to be entertained to make emancipation acceptable to conservatives: "Gradualism, Compensation, Exportation — if these tubs amuse the whale, let him have them!"[44] Born from the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay and thrust into the hands of Lincoln the pragmatist, colonization became an effective tool in dealing with the politically charged issue of what would be done with slaves freed during the war. In using colonization as an expedient for emancipation during late 1862, Lincoln may have fused the two ideas even more tightly together in his mind, making it nearly impossible for him to believe that one could exist without the other.

On March 21, 1864, the ship Marcia C. Day, symbol of the dying dream of colonization, slowly steamed up the Potomac carrying what was left of the Vache Island expedition — about 350 malnourished and raggedly clad black men, women, and children. Seized upon by a multitude of military agents desperate to fill recently issued quotas, the black men again found themselves the recipients of an offer of government aid. But now the aid came not in the form of relocation outside the country of their birth, but instead in an offer of food, clothing, and even a small salary given in return for their enlisting in the Union army. Almost unanimously the colonists consented to the proposals of C. C. Gibbs, a Massachusetts military agent who boarded their ship just before it docked in Washington Harbor, to fight under the Massachusetts banner against the Confederacy. [45] Here was a fitting end to Lincoln's final colonization effort: Page  [End Page 44] faced with the impracticalities of colonization and the tide of public opinion against it, and realizing that blacks could serve their country better within than without, Lincoln would now witness, and eventually lead, the transformation of a movement to separate blacks and whites into an effort to join the two races (in segregated regiments) in combat against a common enemy. Page  [End Page 45]


  1. Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 358–62; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 2:16. return to text
  2. Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 6:41n–42n (hereafter cited as Collected Works). See Frederic Bancroft, "The Ile à Vache Experiment in Colonization," in Frederic Bancroft: Historian, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957). return to text
  3. Much of the recent debate was set off by Lerone Bennett, Jr., "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" Ebony, Feb. 1968, 35–42. For a review of the literature over the next ten years, see Arthur Zilversmit, "Lincoln and the Problem of Race: A Decade of Interpretations," Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 2 (1980):22–45. return to text
  4. There are a few exceptions to this trend, perhaps most notably Don E. Fehrenbacher, "Only His Stepchildren: Lincoln and the Negro," Civil War History 20 (1974):307–8, which recognizes political expediency as a possible motivation behind Lincoln's plan of colonization. The literature on Lincoln's philosophy of, and efforts at, colonization is extensive. See John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century Co., 1890), 6:354–67; James G. Randall, Lincoln the President (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1945–55), 2:137–41; Charles H. Wesley, "Lincoln's Plan for Colonizing the Emancipated Negroes," Journal of Negro History 4 (1919):7–21; Warren A. Beck, "Lincoln and Negro Colonization in Central America," Abraham Lincoln Quarterly 6 (1950):162–83; Paul J. Scheips, "Lincoln and the Chiriqui Colonization Project," Journal of Negro History 37 (1952):418–53; Willis D. Boyd, "Negro Colonization in the National Crisis, 1860–1870," Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1953; Robert H. Zoellner, "Negro Colonization: The Climate of Opinion Surrounding Lincoln, 1860–65," Mid-America 42 (1960):131–50; Walter A. Payne, "Lincoln's Caribbean Colonization Plan," Pacific Historian 7 (1963):65–72; Gary R. Planck, "Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Theory and Practice," Lincoln Herald 72 (Summer 1970):61–77; Gabor S. Boritt, "The Voyage to the Colony of Linconia: The Sixteenth President, Black Colonization, and the Defense Mechanism of Avoidance," The Historian 37 (1975):619–32; Jason H. Silverman," 'In Isles Beyond the Main': Abraham Lincoln's Philosophy on Black Colonization," Lincoln Herald 80 (Fall 1978):115–22. return to text
  5. See P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 240–50. return to text
  6. Collected Works, 2:132; Planck, "Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization," 61–63; Arvarh Strickland, "The Illinois Background of Lincoln's Attitude Toward Slavery and the Negro," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 56 (1963):474–94. Marvin R. Cain points out that Lincoln's preference for voluntary emigration of blacks puts him more in the tradition of Jefferson than of Clay, who advocated forced deportation of blacks; see "Lincoln's Views on Slavery and the Negro: A Suggestion," The Historian 26 (1964):508. Why Lincoln waited until the 1850s to endorse the colonization movement probably has as much to do with politics as with the resurgence of the colonization movement. His eulogy of Clay came in the midst of the renewed effort by the Free Soil party to capture the presidency and the disaffection of many southern Whigs who feared the Whig party was becoming overly committed to antislavery. By advocating colonization and claiming allegiance to the principles of a southern Whig such as Clay, Lincoln perhaps was hoping to present himself as a more moderate, less northern Whig. return to text
  7. Collected Works, 2:255. See V. Jacque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro during the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1–9. return to text
  8. Collected Works, 2:409; 3:15, 192, 233–34. At Charleston, Illinois, in 1858, Lincoln said about blacks and whites: "And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race" (ibid., 3:145–46). return to text
  9. Ibid., 4:561. return to text
  10. Ibid., 5:48. return to text
  11. Congress, Senate, 37th Cong., 2d sess., Congressional Globe, March 17, 1862, vol. 32, pt. 2, 1191, 1319. return to text
  12. Congress, Senate, 37th Cong., 2d sess., Congressional Globe, April 11, 1862, vol. 32, pt. 2, 1633, 1634. return to text
  13. Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 109; Harold Hyman, "Lincoln and Congress: Why Not Congress and Lincoln?" Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 68 (1975):57–73. Since Hyman's call, much has been written on the relationship between Congress and Lincoln. See, for example, Allan G. Bogue, The Congressman's Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially ch. 2. return to text
  14. George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (1971, repr. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 148–49; Collected Works, 5:192. return to text
  15. Francis P. Blair, Sr., Silver Spring, to Lincoln, Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 1861 [with encls.], Robert Todd Lincoln Collection, Library of Congress (microfilm copy; hereafter cited as RTL Coll.). See Scheips, "Lincoln and the Chiriqui Colonization Project," 421. Soon after the elder Blair wrote to Lincoln, Montgomery Blair reinforced his father's words with a letter to the president, pleading that colonization was "indispensable to prevent unspeakable horrors and will soon reconcile the non Slave holders to the union" (Blair to Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1861, RTL Coll.). return to text
  16. Smith to Lincoln, May 16, 1862, in 38th Cong., 1st sess., 1866, S. Exec. Doc. 55, Serial 1238, 10 (hereafter cited as S. Exec. Doc. 55). For the proposed plans mentioned by Smith, see S. Exec. Doc. 55, 8–9. return to text
  17. Collected Works, 5:318. return to text
  18. Howard K. Beale, ed., The Diary of Gideon Welles: Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson, 3 vols. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1960), 1:70–71; David Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1954), 95, 98. return to text
  19. For extensive details on the Chiriqui scheme, see Scheips, "Lincoln and the Chiriqui Colonization Project." return to text
  20. Collected Works, 5:370–75; Frederick Douglass, "The President and His Speeches," Douglass Monthly, Sept. 1862; Henry Highland Garnet to Thomas Hamilton, in the Pacific Appeal, Oct. 11, 1862; James M. McPherson, "Abolitionist and Negro Opposition to Colonization During the Civil War," Phylon 26 (1965):394–96; David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 134–47. return to text
  21. Collected Works, 5:370n–71n; Scheips, "Lincoln and the Chiriqui Colonization Project." return to text
  22. Diary of Gideon Welles, 1:123; Congress, Senate, 37th Cong., 2d sess., Congressional Globe, June 28, 1862, vol. 32, pt. 4, 2997. return to text
  23. New York Evening Express, Sept. 23, 1862, 2. return to text
  24. New York Times, Oct. 1, 1862, 4; Chicago Tribune, Sept. 26, 1862, 2. Perhaps the most common argument of white northerners against colonization was that the postwar South could survive only if the labor force remained in place. See, for example, Robert Dale Owen, New York, to Edwin M. Stanton, July 23, 1862, Robert Dale Owen Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; the letter was reprinted in many newspapers during late 1862. return to text
  25. Franklin Butler, Windsor, N.H., to R. R. Gurley, Washington, D.C., Aug. 16, 1862, W. W. McLain, Washington, D.C., to R. R. Gurley, Haddenfield, N.J., Aug. 26, 1862, American Colonization Society MSS., Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (microfilm copy). return to text
  26. John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1963), 42–44. return to text
  27. Collected Works, 5:434; Samuel C. Pomeroy, Washington, to James Rood Doolittle, Racine, Wis., Oct. 20, 1862, James Rood Doolittle MSS., Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, reprinted in Publications of the Southern Historical Association 9 (Nov. 1905):401–2. Lincoln's frustration with financial misappropriation in the Chiriqui scheme is described in Ambrose Thompson, New York, to Richard Thompson, Oct. 6, 1862, Papers of the Chiriqui Improvement Company, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield (copy in Ambrose Thompson MSS., Manuscript Division, Library of Congress [hereafter cited as Thompson MSS., LC]). These collections — the personal papers of Ambrose Thompson at the Library of Congress and the papers of his company at the Illinois State Historical Library — provide numerous insights into Lincoln's action, or rather inaction, toward colonizing blacks and have remained almost untouched by historians. return to text
  28. Diary of Gideon Welles, 1:152–53; Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet, 160. return to text
  29. That Lincoln and Seward, both astute politicians, should favor postponing all Central American colonization projects until treaties were secured reflected a lack of commitment to colonization, for both men must have at least suspected that no such treaty would be sustained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chair, Charles Sumner, was well known as an ardent foe of black colonization. Pomeroy later believed that Lincoln and his secretary of state might be using this strategy to impede the Chiriqui project, and he was furious when Lincoln told him directly that he would take no further action until Congress met in December. See Pomeroy, Washington, to Orville Hickman Browning, Oct. 27, 1862, Orville Hickman Browning MSS., Illinois State Historical Library; and C. S. Dyer, Washington, to Ambrose Thompson, Jr., Philadelphia, Nov. 11, 1862, Thompson MSS., LC. return to text
  30. Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet, 156. Although the reason for Pomeroy's conversion is unknown, there can be no doubt that he was sincere in his support for colonization. In his letter to Doolittle on Oct. 20, 1862 (note 27), Pomeroy described how the issue had forced him "to separate and quarrel with my old and valued friends." return to text
  31. Usher to Lincoln, Aug. 2, 1862, RTL Coll. When word came to Charles Dyer, a clerk to Usher and an ally of the backers of the Chiriqui scheme, that Smith was soon to retire as secretary of interior and Usher was to take his place, he wrote to Ambrose Thompson that the change would assure the success of Thompson's plan; Dyer to Thompson, Nov. 1, 1862, Thompson MSS., LC. return to text
  32. Howard K. Beale, ed., The Diary of Edward Bates, 1859–1866 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1933), 268; Collected Works, 6:41n–42n; Bancroft, "The Ile à Vache Experiment." Lincoln did not sign this contract with the confidence with which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation the next day. Distrusting Kock, Lincoln asked Secretary of State William H. Seward not to countersign the contract or affix the seal of the United States to it, "but to retain the instrument under advisement." In this way, Lincoln never allowed the contract to become official. return to text
  33. Collected Works, 5:520–21, 530. Only a day or so before the annual message, Lincoln told T. J. Barnett, a minor Interior Department official with powerful Democratic allies, that he still thought colonization plans could succeed; Barnett to Samuel L. M. Barlow, Nov. 30, 1862, Samuel L. M. Barlow MSS., Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. return to text
  34. Collected Works, 6:41n–42n. Lincoln also ordered Seward to cancel his signature on the earlier contract with Kock (ibid., 6:178–79). return to text
  35. New York Daily Tribune, Oct. 17, 1863, 4; Bancroft, "The Ile à Vache Experiment," 244–56. return to text
  36. Exactly $38,329.93 of the allocated funds was spent, and of this amount $25,000 was still unaccounted for in 1870; see S. Exec. Doc. 55, 3. For the bill, see Congress, Senate, 38th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Globe, March 15, 1864, vol. 33, pt. 2, 1108, and Statutes at Large 13 (1863–65), ch. 210. return to text
  37. On June 13, 1863, for example, Lincoln approved a plan proposed a year earlier that allowed British agents to recruit black emigrants for the colonies of Honduras and Guyana. See James Mitchell to Lincoln, June 14, 1862 (with Lincoln's endorsement of June 13, 1863), Records of the Secretary of the Interior Relating to the Suppression of the African Slave Trade and Negro Colonization, Library of Congress, reprinted in Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830–1865, ed. George E. Carter (New York: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1981). return to text
  38. Pomeroy to Lincoln, April 16, 1863, Papers of the Chiriqui Improvement Company (copy in Ambrose Thompson MSS., LC). No copy of the letter exists in the Lincoln papers; perhaps he did not send it. return to text
  39. Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1939), 203. Why Hay chose to make this statement on this date and not earlier is unclear. He may have been prompted by the action Congress was about to take on colonization or by a recent letter from the secretary of the interior to Lincoln, received on June 29, 1864, which stated that since the arrangements for the Vache Island expedition, "No further agreements have been entered into, and no further efforts made, looking to the colonization of persons of African descent beyond the limits of the United States." S. Exec. Doc. 55, 56–57. return to text
  40. Benjamin F. Butler, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benjamin F. Butler: Butler's Book (Boston: A. M. Thayer and Co., 1892), 903. Butler claimed that he persuaded Lincoln to consider a plan to send the armed blacks to dig a canal across the isthmus of Darien (in present-day Panama), a venture quite different from, and lacking the permanence of, the proposals for peaceful colonization Lincoln advocated in 1862. Mark E. Neely, Jr., has shown that Butler fabricated his exchange with Lincoln and that the two men were not even in Washington at the same time when Butler remembered the conversation taking place; see "Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Benjamin Butler's Spurious Testimony," Civil War History 25 (1979):77–83. return to text
  41. As cited in Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War, 147; see also McPherson, "Abolitionist and Negro Opposition to Colonization," 397–99. return to text
  42. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4:26; Dudley T. Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956), 110–26. return to text
  43. S. Exec. Doc. 55, 33; Francis P. Blair, Sr., Silver Spring, to Charles Sumner, Oct. 25, 1863, and Francis P. Blair, Sr., Silver Spring, to Francis P. Blair, Jr., St. Louis, Dec. 23, 1863, Blair Family MSS., Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Thompson to Lincoln, June 2, 1863, RTL Coll. return to text
  44. New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 2, 1862, 4. return to text
  45. According to Thomas Drew, the primary military agent of Massachusetts, Gibbs claimed that "There [were] 206 able bodied men between 18 and 45 and about one hundred and twenty five women and children ... the best looking lot of 'darks' he has ever seen together" (Gibbs, Washington, to John A. Andrew, Boston, March 22, 1864, and Thomas Drew, Washington, to John A. Andrew, Boston, March 24, 1863, John Andrew MSS., Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). return to text